HEMPSTEAD, N.Y.—Mitt Romney's senior staff did not enter the spin room after Tuesday night's debate with the same kind of bounce in their step they exhibited in Denver after the Republican presidential nominee's first showdown with President Barack Obama.
Unlike the first debate, when the Romney campaign rushed to be the first to declare victory in the spin room, it was Obama's top aides who ran to reporters—making their case a full eight minutes before the debate was even over that Obama was the night's big winner.
As their boss delivered his second to last answer of the night, Obama aides were already casting Tuesday's debate as a major loss for Romney, describing the former Massachusetts governor as "exposed," "rattled" and "confused"—terms they used again and again with reporters.
"Romney was exposed and rattled," Jim Messina, Obama's campaign manager, told a swarm of reporters thrusting tape recorders in his direction. "He spent the night on the defense."
A few feet away, Obama strategist David Axelrod offered a similar take, suggesting Romney was "pretty much exposed tonight."
"He seemed nervous and uncomfortable and very, very defensive and I can understand why," Axelrod said.
Nearby, Obama adviser Robert Gibbs offered nearly identical talking points, casting Romney as a candidate who had changed positions again and again.
"I have no doubt that if we had ten more debates we would actually get a very different Mitt Romney on virtually every single issue that we discuss," Gibbs said. "I think he began to look very unbalanced and rattled."
Not surprisingly, Romney's senior aides offered the exact opposite take—when they finally showed up. For almost 20 minutes, Team Romney left it up to outside surrogates, including former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, that the Republican candidate had won the night.
Just before 11 p.m. ET, Stuart Stevens and Eric Fehrnstrom, two members of Romney's inner circle, finally walked into the spin room—making the case to reporters that it was Obama who had offered an uneven and too aggressive debate performance.
"Someone told him to go act like Joe Biden," Stevens said, likening Obama's performance to Al Gore's famously aggressive debate performance against George W. Bush in 2000.
Romney, Stevens argued, presented "a more steady, sober, positive" message—one he said, that was "consistent" with how Romney performed in Colorado two weeks ago.
"People find it very disconcerting if different people show up at different debates," Stevens said. "Here's Barack Obama tonight … You don't want this kind of jack-in-the-box quality. You want consistency. Not the 'I've been coached to do this. They tell me to do this.'"
Privately, Romney aides were critical of CNN's Candy Crowley, the debate's moderator, for her impromptu fact check of Romney's claim that Obama had not described the attack against the United States consulate in Benghazi, Libya, as a "terrorist attack."
In the spin room, Romney's surrogates repeated the candidate's claim—arguing the public was aware of Obama's "shifting account" and insisted their candidate didn't flub an attempt to ding the president on an issue that could be unfavorable for him on Election Day.
But Stevens acknowledged the issue is likely to come up in Romney's stump speech in coming days as a way of reminding voters about what he described as questions about Obama's "judgment."
"It's a judgment about … is this person being straight with the public?" Stevens said. "People have a very clear idea that this is a troubling incident."
Chris Moody contributed to this report.
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